Bad science alert! The evolutionary role of domestic violence?

// 28 September 2011


I’m going to repeat it again until you’re tired of hearing me say it. I’ve already said it here, here, and here. Evolutionary Psychology tries to make connections between evolution and human behaviour. As a past neuroscientist and a past psychology student, evolutionary psychology does not uphold to scientific rigor. In the mean time, they make grand sweeping statements like “Domestic violence gets evolutionary explanation” at the New Scientist.

To sum up the article, David Buss from the University of Texas argues that violent men are simply trying to make sure their partner has their child and not another man’s. They suggested several studies have supported this link. They refer to two examples;

“For instance, a small study of 65 pregnant women in North Carolina found that those whose partners attacked them were more likely to be carrying another man’s child (Journal of Family Violence, vol 19, p 201). Another study involved quizzing 8000 women in Canada about their partners. Some 14 per cent of those with a history of domestic violence agreed that their partner “is jealous and doesn’t want you to talk to other men” – less than 1 per cent of women who experienced no violence agreed with the statement (Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol 5, p 2).”

First, let’s break down the two studies the author decided to cite.

The first study cited that women who were attacked were more likely to be carrying another man’s child. This does not prove that men are evolutionary prone to violence to ensure that their baby has their genetic material. I can easily make a different conclusion that women are more likely to be carrying another man’s child than the violent man because she does not feel confident in having a violent’s man’s baby. In fact, I could probably make an evolutionary argument that violent men have violent children, therefore I would evolutionary choose not to have violent men’s babies.

The second study also does nothing to promote the evidence that domestic violence is evolutionary prone. What it does suggest is that domestic violence is correlated to jealous men.

The article actually does not prove the point that domestic violence is evolutionary motivated. In order to prove that domestic violence is evolutionary motivated, we would actually need to a) find the genetic code that codes for domestic violence and then b) see if there is a correlation to the genetic code to actual occurrence of men being violent towards their female partners. Here’s the problem: geneticists have not in any way found any behaviour traits linked to genetics. They have linked diseases, and body functions to genetics but not behaviour. That’s because the link between genetics and behaviour are extremely far apart. There are many factors which affect the genetic material and who we are in our environment which determines our behaviour. Further! to determine the evolutionary link between genetics and behaviour is one extra step which cannot be predicted.

Therefore, we cannot make correlations between evolution and domestic violence.

However, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about evolutionary psychology, evolutionary behaviour, or biological determinism. So tonight I did a little bit of digging to figure out why. At the bottom of the New Scientist article, it gave the link to David Buss’ academic article. If you do a little bit of google search you can actually access the article for free on his website. “The evolution of intimate partner violence” was published in the academic journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour. It is published on Elsevier, which is like a search engine for all the academic journals in the world. Elsevier is a highly reputable organisation.

When you do a little bit of digging, David Buss is a highly regarded academic. He’s been on the Time’s magazine citing why older women are more sexually active. He is highly regarded at the University of Texas. This shocks me as I had always thought the academic community was based on critical thinking. When a male student sued the LSE Gender Institute for being sexist, my original thought was the LSE Gender Institute has a system to ensure that they are accountable to critical thinking and it would be absurd to out-gender-theorized the gender theory capital. Perhaps I hadn’t given Evolutionary Psychology enough of a chance? I started pouring over David Buss’ article looking for some semblance of critical analysis.

I have to admit, it is a well written academic article but I had some major problems with it. Here’s an excerpt:

“In order to reap the benefits inherent in long-term mateships, people must engage in actions that ensure that the potential benefits of long-term committed mating are indeed received. Without ensuring access to those benefits, the costs of long-term mating (e.g., in time devoted to courtship; in forgone mating opportunities) would have precluded the evolution of long-term mating to begin with. Indeed, the heavy costs of long-term committed mating may explain why it is so rare. Monogamy characterizes only 3% to 5% of mammalian species (Kleiman, 1977).”

This quote is based on the parental investment theory as noted in Wikipedia. It predicts different mating strategies between men and women. For example, women will be extremely choosy as they have a greater investment in the offspring and men will not be so choosy. Or the old adage that men only want to fertilize and ensure the procreation of their offspring.

But if you follow the quote’s analysis, it determines that there is a great benefit to monogamous relationships, they require alot of investment, and thus they are extremely rare. Monogamy only characterizes 3-5% of the mammalian species. But why does the analysis follow the line of thought which focuses on reproduction and monogamy? You could also argue that as monogamy has such high costs and it is so rare in the mammalian species that the human species is abnormal to be pushing monogamy on couples. Society should not push monogamy and we should let human species do as they are evolutionary naturally to do so which is not monogamous.

Luckily, at the bottom of the Wiki article cited criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology. First, Evolutionary Psychology is operating under naturalistic fallacy meaning they are mixing the nature vs nuture debate. The “nature versus nurture debate” demonstrates that scientist don’t know where the line is drawn between when genetics starts or when the environment ends when determining behaviour patterns. Secondly, evolutionary psychology is genetically reductionist and genetically deterministic illustrating it does not address the complex interaction between genes and behaviour (as I mentioned above). Lastly, Evolutionary Psychology does not pass the age old scientific measuring stick of “measurability of hypothesis”. Remember back in grade school when our science teacher gave us the Methodology of Science? A testable hypothesis has to be measurable, so that someone else can replicate the exact same experiment with the original notes. You cannot replicate Evolutionary Psychology therefore it fails the methodologies of science.

Further, when reading more about the criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology, there are many books written critiquing the scientific nature of evolutionary psychology. Everywhere from philosophers of science, geneticists, psychologists, neurologists, behavioural anthropologists, and social anthropologists. In fact it’s the wide range of criticism which comforts me and reassures me that despite Evolutionary Psychology is an academic field, it is being criticized from other angles.

So overall, while Evolutionary Psychology has more academic support than I’m comfortable with it demonstrates that not all academic communities are as rigorous or as critical as I’d like. It shows that we need to be critical of everything we read as different institutions can have gender biases.

Comments From You

Lizzy // Posted 29 September 2011 at 2:46 am

Thanks for your article. It is obviously potentially dangerous to attempt to explain domestic violence via evolution, as it risks fuelling a belief that such behaviours are innate and that there isn’t a lot we can/should do to change them. Similarly if an abuser believes his behaviour is a biological thing, he’s less likely to try to stop it.

It was interesting to me that you are critical of Evolutionary Psychology as a field, as most of the psychologists I have come across are so fond of it – I did degrees in Psychology and Neuroscience at quite a good university, and they are very keen on evolutionary psychology there. As well as teaching evolutionary psychology itself, the concept is often added on within other domains of psychology, for example; such and such a behaviour occurs, and this probably developed because of…[evolutionary explanation], or, this brain region is probably functioning in such a way due to…[evolutionary explanation]. I was sort of trained to be able to address things via the gaze of evolution as it were. Personally I’m not particularly fond of that way of looking at things, I’d rather use Psychology and Neuroscience to improve people’s lives now, rather than speculating about past processes that might have contributed to modern behaviour.

Rairun // Posted 29 September 2011 at 10:55 am

I agree that the “evidence” for evolutionary psychology isn’t evidence at all. Those theories are basically just-so stories, no different from thunder-god myths and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I am actually a fan of evolution — particularly so if you think ideas and behaviors can be selected for and propagate. Genetics + memetics provide an excellent framework to explain how we came to be (i.e. they show there are natural mechanisms that can give rise to complex behavior without any need for the supernatural). But like you said, the problem is that some scientists don’t take the sciencey part of their job seriously enough, and make claims without evidence to back them up.

Anyway, what I really wanted to say was that even if we had evidence to claim that domestic violence was an evolutionary advantage, that wouldn’t justify it in any shape or form. Once again, I’m not disagreeing with you here — just saying that, although I hate bad science, I don’t think it’s really where sexism lies. Whether domestic violence is an evolutionary trait is neither here nor there. I think the problem is the naturalistic fallacy that often comes along with it: if it’s a natural behavior, then it must not be so bad.

Josephine Tsui // Posted 29 September 2011 at 11:34 am

Thank you Rairun. I appreciate your comment, but I have a few questions.

1) Reading on Genetics & memetics. I see it as certain behaviours manifest in certain people. That behaviours can evolve through natural selection. Maybe, maybe not. Memetics are also based on the same foundations of evolutionary behaviour.

What I’m trying to say is how do you physically make the link between genetics and behaviour? Memetics transplants darwinian methodologies onto behaviour. But Darwinian science was never made for behaviours, it was made for genes. There is very little research that actually explore the mechanism between genes and behaviour. (What chromosome? Can you isolate the gene? What does the gene produce in terms of proteins? What are the mechanisms occur with those proteins? What structures and molecules do they form? And do the particular structures and molecules influence behaviour or are they simply another complex biological process?) We’re still struggling with the genetic code on simple issues, I find it hard to believe we can extrapolate the genetic code on complex behaviour.

2) Let’s say there is an evolutionary advantage to domestic violence. (Which you are correct to say it does not justify domestic violence) what is nature actually trying to tell us?

What is the evolutionary advantage to women being in an unsafe space?

The closest example of this type of extrapolation has been seen in the XYY syndrome. If you do a quick google search, you can examine many behavioural symptoms from the XYY syndrome. In 1968, the genetics community believed that XYY syndrome increased the amount of testosterone (DNA protein coded to produce a steroid) which stigmatized people with XYY to be more violent. It was quickly discovered by the American Psychological Association in 1969 that these were false claims and people with XYY syndrome were not any more violent than people with XY chromosomes.

So even with an extra chromosome, and a definitive correlation to a mood altering steroid has not shown any statistical link to behaviour. Further it is steeped in gender stereotypes that it is the male testosterone which causes violent behaviour.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 29 September 2011 at 12:20 pm

Missing of course from evolutionary psychology is the socialisation process wherein female and males learn that certain behaviours are perceived as ‘good’ whereas others are ‘bad.’ Interpersonal male violence against women has been justified by male supremacist system for centuries and not it is not because men are biologically programmed to commit said violence. Furthermore humans are not animals because we have the ability to rationalise whereas animals do not. But try telling that to the evolutionary psychologists.

Still evolutionary pyschology is popular because it is simplistic and invisibilises the unequal power men hold compared to women.

I recommend individuals read Myths of Gender by Anne Fausto-Sterling who is a feminist scientist.

By the way David Buss is promoting misogynistic views because women do not ‘have men’s babies.’ Last time I checked women were still the ones playing a principal role in creating the foetus and yet we continue to hear claims women are ’empty wombs waiting for the magical sperm to create the foetus.’ Such claims harken back to that arch misogynist Aristotle who believed women were ‘faulty males.’

If men have ‘babies’ why are not men the principal ones responsible for raising their children but of course childcare is always relegated to women because men are far too busy buying into evolutionary pyschology as a justification for continued male domination over women. So no women do not have ‘men’s babies’ but women can and are certainly forcibly impregnated by men and that is called rape.

Rairun // Posted 29 September 2011 at 2:59 pm

Hi Josephine, thanks for your reply! And I’m sorry for the long post below; I couldn’t address the points you raised properly otherwise.

1) My understanding of memetics is that it’s related to genetics only in the sense that it treats ideas as analogous to genes. It’s a way of conceiving the way ideas, behaviors, etc. propagate or fail to propagate. Domestic violence, for example, could be considered a somewhat successful meme — not in the sense that it’s good for us, but in the sense that it has survived and spread itself successfully in our culture. It would be interesting to understand how this happened and continues to happen, though I have no idea how we could do this scientifically.

To be honest, I don’t have much faith in memetics as a scientific framework. At this point, it amounts to a fancy way of saying that ideas and behaviors spread or die, depending on the cultural environment they find themselves in. It’s basically a truism without any predictive power. I do think it’s valuable as an alternative to the idea that complex behavior could only come about through some sort of spiritual/religious/supernatural process; but I can’t see how we could actually explain the evolution of memes scientifically. We don’t have enough data. So yeah, I see memetics more as a naturalistic vocabulary to talk about culture, rather than a scientific discipline.

Regarding the link between genetics and behavior, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s naive to think there’s a 1:1 correspondence between a gene and a behavior, but I do think there are behaviors that are more genetically-determined than others. For example, I doubt there’s a gene that determines whether a individual will avoid staring at the sun, but the countless genes that determine the way our eyes function causes most of us to look away from bright lights. On the other hand, more complex behaviors probably rely on more general capabilities and limitations — and the rest is left up to culture. So yeah, I agree with you that those links have hardly been explored, and evolutionary psychology amounts to uninformed guesswork.

2)The thing about evolutionary psychology’s just-so stories is that they are actually logically sound. As the story goes, the evolutionary advantage to domestic violence, as far as the person responsible for the violence is concerned, is that he will have more power to pass on his genes. Women being in an unsafe space would be just a side-effect of that. You can make the same argument for several other things: serial rape, being a good partner so a woman will want to have children, polygamy, basically anything that could possibly increase the number of babies. Scientifically speaking, the issue is that we have no evidence to support the idea that being a rapist, or a good partner, or sociable, or polygamous, (1) increases the overall chances of producing offspring, and (2) is determined by a gene or a complex combination of genes. So while these are all things that could possibly help an individual to produce offspring, it’s not at all clear that such behavior would be passed on to the next generation.

Either way, yeah, let’s assume there’s an evolutionary advantage to domestic violence, more specifically for men who create an unsafe space for women. In this case, I don’t think nature would be trying to tell us anything. As things stand, nature (in the broader sense of the word, i.e. the universe) puts women in an unsafe space. That’s a fact. If domestic violence is cultural instead of genetically hard-coded (and I think it is), that still doesn’t change the fact that our culture is a natural phenomenon, which, for natural causes, has prevailed up to this point. This is why I insist that the causes for domestic violence are irrelevant (except maybe for us to figure out how to put and end to it) — they are all natural, whether they are biologically or culturally determined. What we can’t do is fall for the naturalistic fallacy, which tries to turn whatever is deemed “natural” into normative. Just because something is an evolutionary advantage, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing for us as a society.

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